On ‘Consciousness’

Eric at The Splintered Mind discussed few days ago the issue of defining consciousness. I left few comments on that post, but I will try here to expand on what I said there…

When in math or logic we do (or follow) some complicated proof, as we go further and further from the starting assumptions, we loose more and more the direct comprehension of the relations. And while at the start, we had a full understanding of the premises and in that understanding we took them as self-evident, we don’t trust the later conclusions because of such comprehension. Instead because of the limits of our power of comprehension we have to limit our understanding to each of the steps (or to few steps of the proof in time), and our decision to take the step n as right, we have to rely on our memory that says that what we’ve done until the step n-1 is right too.

Because of this, when in some step we come to some contradiction, or something which looks wrong or weird, we can’t immediately see why this is wrong, or can’t immediately see where it comes from. We have to retrace all the steps in the proof, and find where (if anywhere) we made a mistake, or in order to understand where the specific thing in the later steps comes from. Doing this, we get better understanding of the specific thing which appears in the proof, and its relation to the other things.

I think that this kind of relying on previous wisdom, or previous understanding happens in the case of language. We do become aware of certain things by ourselves, for example individual things like that tree over there, or that kid over there, or multitudes of things which share certain similarity – like trees or kids or cats. But the proper names and common nouns which mean those things of which we are directly aware, are just small parcel of the words in our language. Not just that the language, as part of the communication and other practices in the society will need to reflect those uses that go beyond mere informing about facts, and hence beyond mere referring to individuals or multitudes of which we are aware of, but also, it will necessarily reflect the thoughts of the people directed towards the understanding the world.

In such sense the appearance of new words, and change of the usage of the old ones, will also be related to the new stances and changes of the stances towards the world. The words and their usage, in this way, will be incorporating the understandings (and misunderstandings for that matter) of the past times. So, we may make analogy with the logic and math proofs in that when we use a word today, we must have in mind that it might not refer to something that we are directly aware of, but that in using it we might rely on the previous (mis)understandings of the world, or in general rely on historical acceptance of a need for a new word, or new meaning because of certain use. Because of that, similarly how in the proofs, we might not be able to understand something in the later steps without retracing the previous ones, in the case of language, when we come to a problem with the meaning of some word, we shouldn’t only analyze and think what we mean by the word, or how we use it, but also we sometimes will have to look into history, to see the motivations for introduction, or for changes of usage of the word.

An important thing to keep in mind, when trying to think about types of words like “consciousness” through this historical prism is that the usual (or default) context in which the words appeared is the naive-realistic picture of the world. That is, the pre-scientific picture, in which there was no problem of incompatibility of physical and mental. Though, it is questionable if the scientific picture does have a big effect on the everyday language as it is today, given that we still live our lives within that naive-realist picture. Some scientist, or some philosopher might in his talks discuss things like primary-secondary qualities, or problem of other minds, or representationalism, but I think it will be hard to find anybody that in everyday practical matters, in his everyday practices, will not think and act in naive-realist way.

What I mean by the stance of the naive-realism, BTW, is the view where we basically see the colors, and the shapes, and the sounds, and so on, as in the world, and we think of ourselves and others as subjects which can be aware of those things, which further remember, want to do something, take part in practices and so on. It is, I would say, the natural stance or common sense stance towards the world.

So, in this historical analysis, we also should expect to see two relatively separate treads. One of the common language usage, and another one which starts with the common sense usage but then transfers to the philosophical usage. I think, we will find that it is the philosophical usage that usually is burdened with theories and radically depart from the traditional usage, and that everyday usage has stayed in the vicinity of the traditional usage, but that is beside the point…

Anyway, I think that for good understanding of what we mean by ‘consciousness’, we need to understand all this. Because, while in philosophy it is often presumed that by ‘consciousness’ we are talking about certain phenomenon of which we are all aware, as Eric pointed in that post, if you try to pin point what this phenomenon is, you will encounter problems. Can you point to consciousness? can you give some description of some characteristic property, so that a person who is outside of philosophy will understand what philosophy means by ‘consciousness’?

If we look at the everyday usage of the word, but also at the etymology of the word, we will find that it is mostly used in the sense of ‘awareness’. Today, I think it is mostly used to refer to a person being unconscious, that is – in a state where the person isn’t aware of anything, and this goes with the traditional use of it as ‘knowing, aware’. But notice that in this usage, the word has nothing to do with colors, sounds, shapes, nor with things like concepts.

But in the philosophical usage, I think the word got different life. And mainly because of the advances of the sciences. Those started to explain different phenomena in the world, but the question of the phenomena of which we are aware, but which don’t seem to be explained by those sciences appeared. The qualities were differentiated to primary and secondary, the issue of concepts which are not reducible analytically to the terms of those sciences (like bachelors, chairs, and books) also appeared. And in such way, a need appeared in philosophy to group all those phenomena. As the traditional usage of ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ was mostly inline with some of those phenomena which philosophy grouped in this negative approach, it seems to me philosophy appropriated those words, and related it with this group which was mostly negatively defined.

That this is so, we can point to the terms like ‘qualia’ and ‘conscious experience’ both of which don’t have relatives in the common sense world view. They are simply not something of which we are “directly aware”. They are result of the mentioned theoretical stance towards the world. In the naive realism of the everyday experience, the colors, and sounds are in the world, and the experience is something which happens in the world, and in which subjects participate. Given that terms like ‘qualia’ or ‘conscious experience’ are one of the central notions in the philosophical notion which is related to the word ‘consciousness’, I think we can see the mentioned negative determination of what is meant by ‘consciousness’ in philosophy. What we have, I think, is a gerrymandered term, which includes different kinds of phenomena which are related because of our theoretical picture of how subjects relate to the world.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with words having special usage in philosophy. However, what can be problematic, is mixing of the phenomena of which we are aware, and uncritically transferring this ‘givenness’ to the notion as used in philosophy. In such way we may get into mistakes of taking as self-evident something which is really theoretical.

Apart from that, I think there is one more point to draw on this – It is important to know what we mean by the words, and related to this – to know what we are thinking of. However, we shouldn’t expect that in all the cases the understanding of the meaning can be done by “peeking in our own minds” and giving a definition through sufficient and necessary conditions, or by ostensive definitions. Instead, sometimes to understand what we mean by the word, we need to understand a wider context of the usage of the word, and the needs which resulted with the usage of the word as we have it today. For more discussion related to this, you may want to check earlier posts on the words like ‘books‘, ‘chairs‘ and ‘bachelors‘.